It was a tumultuous week for federal employees. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced a hiring freeze across the government. The administration also suspended social media posts from at least five agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On top of that, news trickled out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was freezing all new grants and contracts. While hiring freezes aren’t uncommon, the EPA’s stay appears to be unusual, if not unprecedented.
The numbers from around the globe are in, and it’s official: 2016 was the hottest year on record, again. According to independent analysis from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2016 was the third year in a row to break temperature records. The New York Times collected AccuWeather data for more than 5,000 cities, including Albuquerque, to illustrate temperature and precipitation changes. Albuquerque’s average temperature last year was 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, while precipitation fell 2.8 inches short of normal. Globally, the average temperature has risen by 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s.
The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a rule related to the state’s regulation of groundwater beneath copper mines last fall. There’s no saying exactly when the court, which heard the case at the end of September, will issue its opinion. But it could be this year. This comes as the price of copper is on the rise after two years of declines. At the end of last year, the metal rallied—and some analysts expect it to do well in 2017.
I’ll admit I took a break from the news over the holiday—a break from writing it and a break from reading it. Now that I’m catching up on what happened around New Mexico, I thought I’d share some of the most important environment news from the past couple of weeks. Because maybe some of these things slipped through your news feed, too. Jobs, jobs, jobs
The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported that Halliburton announced that it’s looking for 200 workers in the Permian Basin as it anticipates ramping up production. According to the story, the energy industry is planning to expand drilling in southern New Mexico and Texas, thanks to a rise in oil prices and increased political support.
Each announcement by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team about his picks for cabinet positions flares public interest. Whether it’s ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department or former Texas Governor Rick Perry as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the appointments provide insight into what the businessman’s presidency might mean for America and the rest of the world. Those appointments will have significant impacts here in New Mexico, which has 23 sovereign Native American tribes, millions of acres of federal lands and an abundance of natural resources like oil, gas, coal, copper and uranium. Not only that, but in the past five years, the state’s environmental regulations and agencies—which might have been able to hold the line against some of the incoming president’s policies—have been weakened during the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. When it comes to issues like science and environmental regulations, high-level staff picks have long-term impacts on everything from pollution trends and energy policy to the rate at which the Earth’s atmosphere is warming.
Gov. Susana Martinez announced Butch Tongate as her choice to head the New Mexico Environment Department. Martinez made the announcement Monday in a press release. Tongate has worked as the deputy secretary of the Environment Department since 2011, when Martinez started her first term as governor. “I’m proud to have Butch take over the helm of the Environment Department,” Martinez said in a statement. “He’s been an integral part of our team since the beginning of the Administration, and the depth and breadth of his experience will be a strong asset as we continue protecting New Mexico’s environment in a balanced and responsible way.”
Tongate said he is “grateful for Governor Martinez’s leadership” and that he looks forward to “continuing to work with her to protect New Mexico’s environment.”
“We serve New Mexicans best when we take a sound and balanced approach to environmental policy—one that protects our air, water, and land, while at the same time allowing businesses to grow,” Tongate said.
Criticism of a controversial new agreement between the state and the federal government on how to clean up legacy waste in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory often has one thing in common—deadlines. Most agreements between states and the federal government to clean up nuclear waste have fixed deadlines set for benchmarks. If the federal Department of Energy misses one of these deadlines, it can then be sanctioned and penalized by the state. “The Department of Energy hates penalties,” Scott Kovac, a research and operations director with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in an interview. “A deadline might shake out some funding from its budget.”
For 11 years, a previous consent agreement between DOE and the state Environment Department set strict deadlines like these in New Mexico.
A report by the Santa Fe Reporter delved into something that has troubled local reporters for some time: how unresponsive public information officers under Susana Martinez have been. The highly-paid positions are usually well above twice the median salary of the state. From the report: Emails, phone calls and text messages to the public information officers are often ignored. Even program managers more often than not refuse to go on the record or discuss policy plans and objectives. Many claim they’ve been instructed not to talk to the press.
The state of New Mexico is seeking over $100 million in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for a mine blowout that led to millions of gallons of orangeish sludge flowing down the Animas River in the Four Corners area of the state. The blowout took place when a contractor with the EPA caused a blowout of an abandoned mine. The mistake by an EPA contractor caused 3 million gallons of toxic waste that had been gathering in the mine for years to flow down the Animas River, into New Mexico then to Utah. The Albuquerque Journal reported on the lawsuit, which has been pending for some time, seeks more than $136 million, most of which for lost economic activity in the state. The Navajo Nation also said after the spill they are readying a lawsuit against the federal government.
Until earlier this year, states across the nation, including New Mexico, had been holding public meetings and planning to cut pollution from power plants. Taken as a whole, those plans were the Obama Administration’s most significant attempt, through the Clean Power Plan (CPP), to cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unable to adhere to the original timeline for requiring states to complete their carbon-cutting plans or face implementation of a federal plan, Texas, Utah, and 18 others suspended work. Others like Colorado, California, Oregon, and many northeastern states continued planning.But in February, the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the CPP, pending the outcome of a lawsuit against the plan before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Then, there’s New Mexico.